Women Writes Herstory
May 14th, 2011 panel at Saints & Sinners Literary Festival
I went to this panel and tried to transcribe as much as I can, though I had to paraphrase and leave out a lot since I can’t actually type quite fast enough to keep up with every word. So here are some thoughts and stories from some of the leading lights in lesbian and feminist publishing and writing.
Amy Briant, Joan Timberlake, Maureen Brady, Jess Wells, moderated by Marianne K. Martin
Amy Briant — author of Shadowpoint and Romeo Falls
Joan Timberlake — literary agent and attorney
Maureen Brady — teaches at NYU, author of several books (and founder of Spinsters Ink)
Jess Wells — a writer of many novels and short stories
Marianne K Martin — Bywater Books
Marianne: Instead of me throwing out a question and having panelists answer, I’d like to have a dialogue about how we’ve been marketing and publishing and writing our stories all along. Much like this whole conference does, really. This is one of the only places where we can talk about our work and support each other. Other conferences aren’t happening anymore (Outwrite). As you’ll see when I introduce the panelists we have quite a range of people, going from those who published a long time ago and were part of the culture of the bookstores and the writers groups and so on up through the people who are having a more digital experience today, and how we can mesh or improve those experiences.
This whole thing got started when Maureen attended a conference that spurred her to suggest this panel…
Maureen Brady: Was anyone else here at the CLAGS Lesbian of the 1970s conference? The dialogue got started there that I wanted to continue here. I went to this CUNY Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) conference that was about Lesbians of the 70s, started by Sarah Schulman initially. The conference was this mix of women on the 70s like me and these younger women who are… studying us. (laughter) I was struck how gratifying it was to hear remembered and reviewed the many accomplishments we had achieved. And so much of our accomplishements were about getting our work into print. There was not a lot in print about lesbians in those days and about how we were emerging at the moment. It was as if getting these words out in to the world it was like our words were the building blocks that were forming our community. Also the songs, the theater, the visual arts that were making a presence, but so many journal and publishing houses and bookstores were springing up. Judith McDaniel, my then partner, and I founded Spinsters Ink because we had the passion. Working on passion of course we of course we volunteers, and it ate into our writing time. Eventually we couldn’t do it anymore, we passed it on to Sherry Thomas one of the founders of a bookstore, and then to Aunt Lute, and then Joan Drury, and now it is part of Bella Books. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time and instead just keep moving it on.
The second thing that really struck me at that conference is that the young women who were studying us were studying mostly our documents. Not using us as resources. They were reading these papers describing what women were doing when they were forming these groups and so forth and then often drawing wrong conclusions. There was a room packed with women, for example, who had gone and “lived on the land” and here were these two young women presenting papers on “what were these women doing?”
I attended Felice Picano’s workshop on memoir yesterday and it was very helpful. I started out as a writer in the 70s, publishing my first novel in 1979, and there was a very strong spirit of helping each other at that time. We learned a lot from Out and OUt Books, Joan Larkin and some other women who had collectivized to publish their poetry, and we passed on that knowledge of how to start a press to Kitchen Table Women of Color Press and others. I traveled across the country doing readings and selling my books to women’s bookstores that were in every city. There were huge crowds to read to and dynamic Q&A sessions as people were really interacting about the work they had read. Whether you were in Iowa City or Denver you felt like you were part of the community and helping to build the community where ever you went. By the time my third novel came out, Ginger’s Fire, it was completely different. I tried to recreate the experience, but the bookstores were just hanging on and barely surviving, and I had really small audiences.
At that time I thought about trying to change in my book tour plans for Internet presence instead. But in 2003 it was still not that easy to reach people on the Internet. At least now I have a Facebook Page and a lot of Facebook friends, but I don’t know what to do with them. But there is a lot of technical information about getting lots of hits, but is that building community? What seems left out or lost is how much communication is really going on? Are we missing ways we can make a community instead of just a promotion hub? If we’re going to move away from face to face onto picture to picture, we need to think more about how to make that community spirit be enlivened by that. So I’m open to learning. I want to be convinced we can be just as connected that way, though I can’t envision it. Nothing works as well as for us to get to know each other at a conference like this one.
Marianne: Jess, you’re someone who has made that transition where you’re out there using Skype and stuff, and you can speak to the passion aspect as well?
Jess Wells: I think the good old days were not always that good and we banded together because we were oppressed, and we’ve dispersed because we’re not as oppressed. But I have connections with people who are writers, people who are mothers, foodies, people who like kickboxing, all kinds of connections, and the fact that I am queer doesn’t prevent me from those connections like it would have 20 years ago. So I think our community is more diversified because of that. The impact may have been really deep when we went on the road and connected with stores, but… well, I got started a little later than you but I’d get to the store and there’d be five or six people there. Maybe I just wasn’t as popular as you. (laughter) Or I’d get off the bus all dirty because I had camped out because I hadn’t been able to afford anything else, and I’d rush into the bookstore’s bathroom to wash up and put on a white shirt that I had carefully saved for the reading and rush out there and…. there’d be nobody there. Or I’d say, hey, where are the posters I sent you for your store window? Oh, you mean this beat up box right here that we never got around to opening? Yeah. It was soooo laborious to try to reach people and the communication was really limited.
But there are so many things we do to connect now that are positive. I can read people’s blogs and find out about their nieces and their pets and their house renovations, so I feel I get to know them in a way that I wouldn’t in a passing meeting at a conference or at a bookstore. It gets past the insularity of the community rules, too, where if you’re going to be in our little clan you have to follow the rules about what we can wear and who you can shtup. I put up a podcast on my Redroom.com site and 25,000 people have listened to it. You know how long it would have taken for me to read to that many people in bookstores shlepping around?
Joan Timberlake: I have something to say to that. I live in Lesbianville, USA. I teach a class in Northampton, MA about LGBT issues and history. I came out when the cows came in in the 1970s. Some of the students will write these papers about things like the founding of a women’s journal… and I was actually there at the founding. What I tell them is stuff they don’t know like in those days we had a lesbian uniform. You know, these days I don’t go out without my toenails painted. But in those days that would have gotten me drummed out of the community! Because it must be dressing up for a man right? Also, i don’t play softball. (laughter) The girls today don’t have any idea what we were going through or what it was like. I mention things to them like you know, if Matthew Shepherd hadn’t happened you wouldn’t be here today, and they are like “Matthew who?” To me that was yesterday and they’ve already forgotten it! They don’t know how important it was, for example, when Rita Mae Brown came out. And that thing she had with Martina, oh my god, I just wanted to run my tongue up that vein in Martina’s arm… (laughter)
But the thing about the way it was, looking back on it, WE owe everything to the people even before us. I went into this place in 1975, young and stupid, it was the Port in the Storm in Baltimore. (cheers from some folks in the audience) And this woman got up and said “Tonight is special because I’ve been with my girl now 25 years.” And they were this butch/high femme couple. And I was so young and arrogant I went up to her and said “Well that’s wrong, she’s not a GIRL she’s a WOMAN” and I hear myself saying that in my memory and I could just punch myself. How amazing was it that this woman was so courageous to come out in the 1950s?? And I totally didn’t get that then, I was too wrapped up in my ideas of the community.
Nowadays though there are such good writers. We assimilate now, but that’s not necessarily bad .When we started out in the 1970s we had to save our lives. We couldn’t expand. I don’t like the term “crossover” for our literature. I think it’s more like assimilation. We’re taking what culture we have and we’re bringing it to the whole world now. As a literary agent I am trying to sell my clients work not to the lesbian presses but to the larger presses, even though I’m a lesbian agent who represents lesbian clients. I get to do that now because we are assimilating somewhat.
Amy Briant: In 1970 I was in third grade, so I have a different experience from the rest of the panel here. Each generation has a different experience, obviously. Two years from now Facebook may be kaput and we’ll be laughing. It’s important for each generation to learn and honor the past and where we’ve come from as a community, breakthroughs that were made by individuals, by women who came out and made it possible for us to have more freedom and to assimilate.
I have friends now who are like oh your book is coming out? When’s the book tour? And I’m like, no, they don’t do that anymore. Unless I just stand on street corners myself and read it I guess (laughter). Showing up at the bookstore and having no one there is almost worse than just staying home, I think. Facebook has really blown up for me in a good way. The way to reach out and communicate with all different authors, especially overseas.
Marianne: I did a signing at Joseph Beth Bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky in 1993. It was very old school, where they put me up at a bed and breakfast, and took me to dinner and everything, and then we get to the store and it’s a huge store! And they have the book all stacked up and a big chair for me and I’m starting to WORRY. I’m thinking, wow, this is a lesbian book, who is going to show up? And people are coming in and some of them are clearly just passerby and they kind of shuffle away, but then some did buy it. But I notice that there are these staff members all around and I’m starting to wonder what’s going on. And the hostess says “oh, you don’t have to worry about that now.” And I’m like NOW? What do you mean? And she says, oh, we had a threat. But don’t worry about it. They were so supportive and wonderful. But that was the kind of thing they had to deal with. And I”m sure a lot of the people who bought that book were straight.
Joan: But that’s the thing. A white person can enjoy a book with an African American character, so why can’t straight people enjoy a book with a lesbian character? Of course they can. But New York publishers don’t want to hear about that. They think only lesbians would want to buy the book and that we’re too small a community to market to unless you’re a lesbian press. I do have to try, though. I’ve got an author with an intersexed character now, and she said don’t ask me to change it, and I said I won’t, that’s what the book is about. And we’re going to go to the mainstream presses with it. We may bomb out, but we’re going to try.
Then came questions from the audience and I couldn’t quite keep up with typing it all. We did somehow end up concluding that a mother daughter black lesbian horse book would be a bestseller, though.